Book Review: Russell Redenbaugh's 'Shift the Narrative'

Book Review: Russell Redenbaugh's 'Shift the Narrative'
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During a 2005 visit with Andy Kessler, the investor, writer and speaker extraordinaire imparted some wisdom to me that’s never  been forgotten: the second best answer in the world is no.  As Kessler explained it, “no” brings with it certainty that frees those rejected to move on in productive fashion.

Kessler’s thinking came to mind while reading investor, futurist and political economist Russell Redenbaugh’s memoir and motivational book, Shift the Narrative.  Redenbaugh has long embraced the finality of life’s seemingly cruelest verdicts, only to ascend to greater and greater career and personal heights. 

Redenbaugh’s story begins when he was sixteen, and experimenting with homemade rockets in the garage of his family’s Salt Lake City home.  An errant spark led to a thunderous explosion that nearly killed him.  He lost an eye, retained partial sight in the other, lost most of his left hand, and retained limited use of his right. 

Eight months later, and after countless surgeries on his partially working eye, Redenbaugh heard the verdict on his remaining sight as told to his inconsolable mother: “We have done all that we can do.  He will be blind for the rest of his life.” What’s amazing is how the patient responded to news that would perhaps cause most to give up.  Redenbaugh was relieved.

As he explained it, “Receiving my prognosis relieved the torture of inactivity, anxiety of uncertainty, and the depression of boredom all in one fell swoop.” Having been told no, Redenbaugh could begin living again after months of purgatory.  He immediately dictated to his mother a letter requesting a seeing-eye dog.  As Redenbaugh reasoned, “Other than my eyesight, I was a perfectly healthy teenage boy who still had one year of high school to complete.” He confidently declared that “being blind did not mean I would be poor, dependent and homebound.”

Despite Redenbaugh rewriting his own personal narrative about a life that would be defined by the work and marriage enjoyed by the “able-bodied,” doubters were everywhere.  Upon return to his 2,700-person high school, a less-than-mobile Redenbaugh overheard a conversation between two janitors in which one asked, “Isn’t that the most pitiful thing you’ve ever seen?” Apparently they equated a lack of sight with a lack of hearing.

Redenbaugh was ultimately accepted by the University of Utah, only to finish at the top of his class.  He then set his sights on the top MBA programs in the U.S. The problem was that they had no interest in him.

Stanford rejected him based on the admission committee’s assessment that “a blind person would not be able to graduate from their school.” Harvard offered the same reasoning, but at least returned to Redenbaugh his $25 application fee, which “was one hundred gallons of gasoline at the time.” Redenbaugh then took the train from Salt Lake City to Philadelphia, and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.  What he viewed as the “number three school” had similarly never accepted a blind student, but he was admitted nonetheless with one caveat: “if you can’t make it here, you’ll have to leave.” Wharton’s first blind student graduated number five in his class.

Yet barriers to Redenbaugh’s self-reliant, working narrative continued to reveal themselves.  While his fellow classmates were inundated with suitors during year two, Redenbaugh “had forty-nine job interviews and not a single offer.” Finally Cooke & Bieler, a then small investment counseling firm in Philadelphia made him a Wharton-style hard pitch: they offered him a job while telling Redenbaugh that “if it doesn’t work you’ll have to leave.” By the 1970s, Wharton’s first blind MBA was the firm’s chief investment officer, partner, and its biggest revenue producer.

Interesting here is that Redenbaugh notes how the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) would have rendered illegal Cooke & Bieler’s conditional offer.  Despite that, he laments the ADA’s passage.  Redenbaugh believes a principal driver of rising unemployment for the disabled springs from firms being reluctant to take risks on them in the first place.  It’s difficult to hire those whom it’s similarly difficult to fire.  

Redenbaugh's immense success as an investor led to close relationships with A-list political types and economists, including Arthur Laffer.  Laffer’s focus on the production side of the economy informs Redenbaugh’s, and that’s why he grew so bullish as he witnessed the collapse of communism in the early ‘90s. With the threat of nuclear annihilation reduced, investment and production would increase.  The blind investor had a vision of the future that most in the sighted world would give anything to possess.  

And then ever-eager to expand his life narrative, Redenbaugh got to work on changing Washington with his appointment to the Civil Rights Commission under George H.W. Bush.  The expansive thinker ultimately found its mission stifled by gridlock such that he recommended its abolition.  Encouraged by his personal trainer, he learned jiu-jitsu in his fifties only to best a slate of sighted opponents on the way to three world championships.

Everyone surely reads a different book, but to read Shift the Narrative is to feel some antipathy towards those so eager to highlight the sad existence of “forgotten Americans” who will soon enough require “basic income guarantees” thanks to a world somehow made overly complicated by an abundance of plenty wrought by technology and trade.  Really? To read Redenbaugh’s inspiring story about overcoming physical obstacles in concert with even greater ones of perception is to question all this sympathy for prosperity’s so-called victims. 

Redenbaugh would counsel the forgotten to change their life narratives.  In his case, “welfare was unacceptable.” More important, Redenbaugh never bought into the idea that his accomplishments were “remarkable” or “unreal.” As he protests, “I was ordinary. I changed.” That’s the one quibble with a book and life story that will surely inspire others to do as Redenbaugh did, and declare a life narrative based on success.  There’s nothing “ordinary” about the remarkable Russell Redenbaugh.  Readers will enjoy figuring out why. 

John Tamny is editor of RealClearMarkets, a Senior Fellow in Economics at Reason Foundation, and a senior economic adviser to Toreador Research and Trading (www.trtadvisors.com). He's the author of Who Needs the Fed? (Encounter Books, 2016), along with Popular Economics(Regnery, 2015). 

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